So, Pete suggested a while back that I should talk about games with built-in story structure, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it.
The truth is, I’m fairly new to “indie” games, which for the most part are the ones which have built-in story structures. I think my first experience was probably Fiasco, which I think I got about a year ago. This year has been packed with new and exciting gaming experiences. So anyway, what this means is I have a few thoughts on this subject but a lot to learn.
I think the game with the most baked-in structure that I’ve played is, ironically, one I’m writing myself: Disaster Strikes!. The game is split into three Acts and an aftermath, running from the introduction and placement of the protagonists in the context of the disaster site, the explosive emergence of the threat, and the plan to escape or confront the disaster head on. The game supports this with specific mechanisms: the GM and players are required to behave differently in each of the three Acts. For instance, in Act I players are not permitted to notice or comment on the developing disaster – the most they can do is to dismiss it in some way as not that bad. Meanwhile, before Act III the GM is not permitted to kill protagonists that haven’t put themselves in harm’s way. This is all modelled, to some extent or other, on actual disaster movies, and the entire game is written to hand-hold you through the process of running a disaster movie. And this is for a very good reason: it’s a zero-prep game, so you don’t want a blank sheet of paper.
Fiasco is similar, albeit much more versatile (and indeed DS! is influenced by Fiasco). Fiasco’s structure is looser, but it gives you more detailed tools to get started with: every game starts by generating the relationships, objects, locations and (most importantly) needs which will drive your story. It has a two-Act structure and everyone knows that in Act I they’re setting up a grand plan, after which there will be a tilt which throws everything up in the air, and in Act II we watch the plan go seriously off the rails with tragic and/or hilarious consequences.
A different approach is taken by Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has relatively little built-in structure; the first session is run differently from subsequent ones, but the story very much unfolds organically after that. But the game provides a toolkit of moves the GM can make to accentuate the drama and keep the game moving. It also provides a built-in structure to the GM’s prep, by organising the GM’s plots into fronts, collections of related threats which, left to themselves, will slowly unfold and put the players in danger.
The same designer as AW also created Dogs in the Vineyard and, similarly, the game provides clear guidance to the GM on how to run things. The characters are sort of enforcers for the in-game faith, travelling from town to town to expose pride and root out sin. The game has a built-in story structure of sorts: every new story involves the Dogs entering a new town and being approach by people to sort out their problems, directly or indirectly. Better still, the game provides excellent guidance on how to break down the moral problems the Dogs must deal with, and how to ensure they’ll be interesting (broadly: two people must have opposed interests, so at least one must lose out from whatever the Dogs do, and both must be sympathetic enough that you’ll care who is going to lose out).
Anyway, the point is this: there’s a lot of good shit going on out there in terms of games which help you to make an interesting story happen, be it through clever mechanics, awesome GM guidance, or built-in structures that lead you through the story. These games sort of point you in the right direction, so you can get on with being creative and focusing on your roleplaying without the worry that you won’t get the kind of game you wanted. They also, not coincidentally, contain some great transferable lessons on how to be an effective GM (and roleplayer) more generally.
Any other suggestions on games that do this stuff well? Chuck ’em in the comments section. My spam filter has been concealing comments from me recently but I’m wise to the problem now, so will keep an eye out for them as they come in.